What does it take for a dad to actually use paid family leave? (Here’s a hint: incentive.)

I can say from personal experience that taking family leave was one of the best choices I've ever made.

The author and his daughter.

As a new dad who both received and used paid family leave when my daughter was born, I’m a bit of an outlier among my peers. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Only 11% of U.S. employees nationwide have paid family leave from their employers. Even at Fortune 100 companies, where 73.6 percent of firms offer some form of paid leave for mothers, only 32.1% reported offering paid family and medical leave to fathers, according to the U.S. Congressional Joint Economic Committee.

But just receiving paternity leave doesn’t guarantee dad will spend time bonding with the newest member of the family. For example, a recent study of college professors who received paid family leave found just 12% of fathers actually used their leave, compared to 69% of mothers. And in California, employees pay a small amount into an insurance pool so they can draw wages while on leave, moms and dads alike can take up to six weeks at 55% of pay to care for a new baby. Even so, while child-bonding claims made by men have increased steadily, they have also increased somewhat slowly: from 17 percent of claims in 2004, to 26% in 2010 and 29% in 2011-12.

Economic reality intrudes here, certainly. While half a paycheck (such as in California) is better than nothing, it’s far short of what most families require to make ends meet. There are also social expectations that pressure men to return to their jobs. What’s interesting is how other countries have changed both of those dynamics for the better, as writer Duncan Black points out in USA Today:

While traveling through Sweden a few years ago, I was struck by the large number of solo fathers pushing their babies in strollers or accompanying their young children in parks and cafes. Inquiry into just why this was the case revealed that this was due, at least in part, to Sweden’s generous and interesting parental leave policy, which gives new parents significant paid leave from work and encourages gender equity in the workplace and at home.

The Swedish government provides a total of 13 months of shared paid leave for parents, paying them 80% of their salaries, up to a limit. However, to make use of the full 13 months, this time must be split between the parents, with each taking at least two months off from work. No one is forced to take time off, but in order to make use of the entire allotment of offered paid leave each parent must use some of the time.

By allowing and encouraging both parents to participate fully in child care responsibilities early on, this policy helps to reduce gender-specific expectations related to the impact of parenting on careers, and reduces stigmas attached to women in the workplace. Primary early parenting duties are less likely to be seen as the sole responsibility of mothers by default, and instead are understood to be a shared responsibility for couples. A career interruption due to childbirth ceases to be something expected only from women.

Sweden isn’t the only place where this has happened, as the Center for American Progress points out: After Norway introduced a paternity quota in 1993 with four weeks of nontransferable paid parental leave available only to men, paternity leave use skyrocketed – from fewer than 3% of fathers before 1993 to more than 70% of fathers by 2005.

Strong families are the backbone of strong communities and a strong economy. All but four countries around the world – Lesotho, Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and the United States – have taken that lesson to heart by mandating paid maternity leave, and many offer leave benefits to dads too.

Study after study of young American men finds the newest generation of working fathers wants the same kinds of workplace options for which working mothers have been clamoring for decades. When that finally happens, let’s just remember that just giving new dads the option may not be quite enough for them to actually use it.

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